Editor's Note: The following is a guest contribution from Houzz, a leading platform for home remodeling and design.
When it comes to outdoor projects, homeowners aren’t messing around. In a new Houzz landscaping survey, 88% of homeowners involved in an outdoor project say the scope of the work is a substantial or complete renovation. Their projects include things like adding paving and garden beds, building or updating structures, regrading, terracing and re-landscaping.
The Houzz Landscaping & Garden Trends Study surveyed 958 registered U.S. Houzz users in February 2016 who had completed an outdoor project in the past 12 months, were working on one or planned to start one in the next six months.
In recent years, landscape professionals and outdoor product manufacturers have come up with clever ways to make outdoor spaces more enjoyable. Durable furnishings and fabrics offer more comfort. Fire pits, fireplaces and heaters extend the use of outdoor spaces into cold months. Innovative drainage methods mitigate flooding, while rainwater harvesting systems irrigate during dry spells so plantings thrive year-round. In light of all that, who wouldn’t want to spend more time outside?
“Things have changed fast in the past 15 years,” says Natalain Schwartz, a landscape contractor in Santa Cruz, California. “Landscaping isn’t just about being pretty anymore. It’s about creating a function. And I think that’s so cool.”
When it rains
You can’t talk about landscaping without first talking about water. According to the survey, water — either how to get rid of it or how to get more of it — is a top challenge among homeowners and designers, as shown in the graph above. In turn, how homeowners and designers manage too much or too little water affects how people use their outdoor spaces.
In California, for example, despite recent El Niño storms that have slightly eased record drought conditions, people are still motivated to reduce water usage. Schwartz says in Santa Cruz, and elsewhere in the state, local water departments continue to offer rebates and subsidies to homeowners who reduce water usage by removing lawns or installing water storage tanks.
To deal with those water shortages, as well as maintenance concerns, nearly half of people are reducing or removing their lawns, according to the survey. Those doing so are replacing their lawns with hardscape, garden beds, ground cover, mulch and more. Fewer people are installing synthetic lawns than in the previous survey year too, down from 8% to 6%.
“My clients realize there are other choices out there,” Schwartz says of synthetic lawns. While she does think faux turf has a place, she doesn’t recommend it for homeowners with children or babies. “It’s an artificial product that off-gasses and even melts,” she says. She describes one client who insisted on having artificial turf only to have it melt when the western sun reflected intensely off the home’s windows.
Despite arid conditions in California, people there are three times more likely to replant their lawns than in the previous year, according to the study. Schwartz says some of those numbers could reflect homeowners who are replanting a lawn with low-water native grasses that look like lawn. “There’s a lot of low-water-use grass and sods that look like lawn and don’t need to be mowed or maintained hardly at all,” she says. “I think this drought has created a big movement with a lot of incentive to develop unthirsty grass.”
Interestingly, helping the environment is down almost 10% from the previous year as the reason for removing or reducing a lawn, while lowering water bills, reducing maintenance and achieving a new outdoor design are up.
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“I would say half of people want to bring in a natural habitat and use less water, and the other half want to get in there before rebates are over,” Schwartz says, referring to rebates and subsidies given out by many California water departments to encourage homeowners to reduce or remove their lawns and harvest more rainwater onsite.
While homeowners in the western states deal with drought conditions, others in places like the South have the opposite problem. In Houston, drainage is a big concern. Shawn Michael, who co-owns Ravenscourt Landscaping and Design with his wife, Laurin Lindsey, says the Texas city’s tight clay soil and heavy rainfall make managing stormwater a huge challenge.
Because of this, lawns actually make sense. “If you take out a lawn and replace it with gravel, when it rains 3 inches in a few hours, that gravel is going to move,” Michael says. “Grass is a good filter and can even help keep temperatures down around a property.”
To mitigate drainage, Schwartz prefers rain gardens, like the one shown here, which help hold groundwater and are good for deep-rooted plants too. “It’s like a natural underground cistern,” she says.
Michael says he and Lindsey’s challenge is finding plants that do well when it’s really dry and hot in Houston, but also when it’s wet and humid. “Low maintenance is the No. 1 draw,” he says.
In Columbus, Ohio, Nick McCullough of McCullough’s Landscape and Nursery says drainage is a concern, but his top challenge is dealing with tighter regulations and a lengthier permitting process. He says a lot of it is due to more elaborate projects that include covered pergolas and fireplaces that create more hoops to jump through. Educating homeowners on the time it takes to complete a project has become more important. “If you want to get your project done this spring, you should have called me last fall,” he says. A typical large project from concept through installation can easily take six months in his line of work.
Comfort is key in updated outdoor spaces. According to the survey, the majority of homeowners plan to add outdoor furniture. In Ohio, McCullough has seen an increase in outdoor-furniture demand, citing better-quality fabrics that feel more like indoor fabrics. “I have clients who don’t scoff at spending $10,000 on outdoor furniture,” he says. Fire pits, benches, grills and built-in seating are also popular features.
LED takes the lead
More than half of people renovating their spaces will make updates to lighting, with LED the preferred choice across all regions, according to the survey. “Incandescent is a thing of past now,” says McCullough, who exclusively installs LED lighting in all his projects. Top reasons for updating lighting in all regions are to illuminate decor and plants, create comfort and prevent slips and falls along pathways, steps, decks and patios.
All for four-legged friends
While a third of homeowners will make updates to their yards to accommodate children and grandchildren, with things like edible plants and space for running and playing, pets are getting even more attention.
More than two-fifths of homeowners will make pet-related upgrades to their outdoor spaces. Play space, toxin-free plants, paths and fenced-off areas top the requests.
“Pets are definitely dictating the space these days,” says McCullough, who adds he’s been seeing more demand for pet-safe organic fertilization and de-icer products.
Schwartz says she recently created a fenced-off area that looks like a shark cage to protect little dogs from mountain lions on a country property. “When the owners go into town, the dogs can go through a doggy door into the little pen,” Schwartz says. “The welded steel is enough to keep any mountain lion out.”
How much will it cost?
The burning question with any remodeling project is always: How much is this going to cost? A look at what other homeowners reported spending, or plan to spend, can offer some insight. According to the survey, the majority of homeowners working on a minor project, which includes things like mulching, minor planting and painting, spent less than $5,000, while more substantial projects (paving, installing new beds and building structures) fall in the $20,000-or-more category.
Who's going to help?
Substantially updating a yard isn’t about playing in the dirt and working on a tan. Chances are clients will want a skilled crew of people who know what they’re doing — and have the ability to lift heavy pavers and get the project done on time.
That’s why more than half of homeowners surveyed are enlisting the help of a landscape professional. Landscape contractors and architects are in high demand, but so are paving and deck specialists.